Mitch Fifield flags shake up of media laws

The Australian | Darren Davidson | 28 September 2015

Media reform is back on the government’s agenda, with plans to overturn the decision by former prime minister Tony Abbott to put off changes to ownership and concentration laws.

New Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said current media rules were outdated in an age when the internet had opened new avenues with audiences.

“To some extent it’s a bit like people focusing on railway gauges while planes are starting to fly overhead,” he said.

Senator Fifield said he would push for reform but would seek industry support before outlining any planned policy changes.

“There will be change over time in terms of media laws,’’ he said. “I think we’ve got a healthy media landscape; it is diverse and competitive but it’s also challenging for providers.

“I’m someone who has a natural inclination towards the consumer regardless of the portfolio area. In my previous role (social services), it was all about moving from a system run by providers to one where the individual was at the centre and in charge.”

Senator Fifield warned that he may proceed without consensus in what will be seen as a significant break with the entrenched position adopted by Mr Abbott, who torpedoed proposals by then communications minister Malcolm Turnbull because of a lack of industry agreement.

“I’m someone who would like to try and achieve consensus among the media players,” Senator Fifield said. “Now consensus doesn’t mean unanimity. I’m aware of the issues but I think it’s really important I sit down and talk to the players.

“There’s no timetable at the moment but technology isn’t standing still and the different ways people are accessing their media are only advancing.”

And while Senator Fifield said he would meet media bosses and proprietors over the next few weeks, he expected a rigorous debate about the “two out of three” ownership cap on newspapers, free-to-air TV stations and radio assets, and the population reach rule, which stops metropolitan and country TV networks merging.

“I’m not going to make any unilateral declarations as to what will happen with media laws, but they (the ‘two out of three’ cap and reach rule) are the subject of a great deal of discussion in the industry and I’m sure they will be ­issues a lot of people will be talking to me about in the near future,’’ Senator Fifield said.

Any move to dismantle pre-Keating era laws could trigger a ­series of takeovers and mergers in the media sector that would dramatically reshape the ownership map for decades.

The prospect of deals could prompt investors to swoop on listed media stocks after a year when many have been oversold by investors amid low earnings growth, fragmenting audiences and disrupted spending patterns in the $14 billion Australian advertising market.

Senator Fifield ruled out abolishing the controversial anti-­siphoning regime, a long list of sports ring-fenced for the commercial networks, and said he had not yet “formed a view” as to whether he would like to remove some matches and events.

“As a government, we absolutely support the general principle that nationally significant events should remain available on free-to-air,” he said.

Any move to repeal laws without a balanced and comprehensive approach that leaves some rules untouched will not only face resistance from media operators and set off a fresh bout of infighting, but could also fail to win approval in the Senate.

Senator Fifield acknowledged the structure of the Senate was challenging, but pointed out that he had steered a series of major projects as assistant minister for social services, including the $22bn National Disability Insurance Scheme.

View the article at The Australian.